- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

An Army pilot project is teaching soldiers techniques drawn from sports psychology such as visualization and bio-feedback to help deal with stress and other mental consequences of combat.

“People that study human performance the most carefully recognize the connection between the physical and mental elements of success … especially at moments of truth,” said Lt. Col. Greg Burbelo.

Col. Burbelo is director of the Army Center for Enhanced Performance (ACEP), a project developed for Olympic athletes - and previously used by trainers with elite West Point cadets and special forces - and applying them to basic training for Army recruits and on-the-job “professional development” for active-duty soldiers.

“We’ve figured out how to do this for our 4,000 cadets,” said Lt. Col. Carl Ohlson of the U.S. Military Academy. “Now we have to figure out the best way to scale and refine that for the whole Army.”

The center is also piloting the techniques with injured and maimed soldiers as part of the Army’s Warriors in Transition program.

“Even with the best possible physical training, you can’t ignore the psychological piece,” said Col. Burbelo, “We teach soldiers the relationship between thoughts, feelings and perceptions” on the one hand “and performance” on the other. “There is a mind-body connection. … They are interrelated. You can leverage your body to perform better.”

The center teaches five sets of skills, including goal setting, imagery integration or visualization and energy management, which uses bio-feedback and breathing exercises to help soldiers regulate their response to stressful situations. In bio-feedback training, soldiers are hooked up to medical equipment that shows them changes in pulse rate and blood pressure.

Trainees are taught techniques to get their hormonal response to stress under control. “It’s called eliciting the relaxation response,” said Col. Burbelo.

“Obviously, when you are entering a building filled with hostiles, your physiology is off the charts,” he said. “We teach a routine of self-regulatory techniques that you can use rather than letting your body take you for a ride in response to external stressors.”

Col. Ohlson calls it, “training yourself to manage the things that are controllable in an environment that is largely uncontrollable.”

“The guys that go through this become your best soldiers,” said Army Brig. Gen. Robert B. Brown, deputy commander of the U.S.-led Multi-National Division North in Iraq. “The difference is being able to perform at your very best at the moments when it counts the most.”

Gen. Brown went through the original West Point course as a captain in 1990, and has used the techniques he learned there in combat in Haiti, Bosnia and Iraq.

“You train the way you fight,” he said. “Traditional training puts soldiers in a stressful situation … now we can train them how to handle it.

“It surprises me that it’s taken so long” for these ideas to get traction throughout the whole Army, he told The Washington Times by telephone from Iraq.

Gen. Brown said he is especially keen on the goal-setting skills that the center teaches, and uses these techniques with the soldiers under his command. “Each soldier has a goals book,” he said, in which they record their targets - whether personal, professional, military, or if they wish spiritual - and then break down achieving them into measurable tasks.

“The difference between the best and the worst soldiers is not usually intelligence, it’s focus,” said Gen. Brown, adding that the mental skills ACEP imparted were essential to create “agile leaders” the Army needed.

In the days of the first Iraq War, “we could overpower the enemy. Now we have to out-think them.”

Another of the ACEP skill sets - visualization - produces results Gen. Brown said he has seen firsthand. Here, trainees are encouraged to think about themselves succeeding at a task before attempting it.

At West Point, said Col. Ohlson, trainees write a script describing themselves in great detail succeeding at a particular task - like a physical fitness test. The scripts are recorded so trainees can listen to them over and over again in “numerous rehearsals incorporating a picture of themselves succeeding.”

“The real take-away is educating them to … use that as a skill” to prepare for high stakes situations like combat, said Col. Burbelo, “rather than let their heads get filled with doubts, worries and fear.

“You’re not going to be Tiger Woods if you just show up,” Gen. Brown said. “Before a great orator gives a speech, he’s practiced it over and over in his mind. … Everyone gets scared, but you have to be confident, in yourself, your team, your equipment.

“A lot of successful people can do this naturally,” he added of visualization, “Many have taught themselves; ACEP is institutionalizing that.”

The center is running pilot projects at nine Army installations across the country, and Army researchers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center are studying the effectiveness of training by the ACEP project at Fort Jackson, S.C. The researchers’ conclusions and their recommendations for the future of the pilot will go to the Army staff at the Pentagon later this year.

The study should provide hard data to demonstrate the effectiveness of the training, Gen. Brown said. “There needs to be more scientific study to get the naysayers” on board.

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